Teaching, Imagination, Discipline

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I'm a mother, a teacher, a playwright, a former academic. I've spent most of my life in and around schools and universities all over the world. Nowadays, among other things, I teach in a high poverty elementary school in Los Angeles.

Monday, October 13, 2008


The Wild Things Are on the prowl. The blog is moving to a new site, Tattleteaching.com. Click here to move there. Please don't forget to RSS or bookmark the new site!

Also, look for MizzB's guest posts on Tech Savvy Mama over on the Washington DC Moms Blog network last Friday, 10/10/08, and this Thursday, 10/16/08.

Tech Savvy Mama: Tech Savvy Guest: Aniboom as Alternative to Computer Games by MizzB

Tech Savvy Mama: Tech Savvy Guest: Aniboom as Alternative to Computer Games by MizzB

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Principal

Every school has to have one. They're loved. They're hated. They're sometimes ignored. A charter school in New York is working hard to minimize them by choosing to pay its teachers principal salaries and its principal teacher salaries. 125K for the teachers, 90K for the head guy. But minimized or maximized, they're still there walking around the yard, parading through the classrooms, greeting parents.

We're getting a new one. Our old one left suddenly at the end of the summer, which pleased many teachers greatly and saddened a select few. The man (why are they so often men in a profession dominated by women?!) was an indifferent educator and a divisive leader who created cliques better than a high school drama queen. He was, shall we, say [fill in the blank from the movie poster].

The new one seems much better. Professional. Cool. A bit reserved, yet willing to smile. Only time will tell.

How can one person make such a difference in the social fabric of a school? T eachers, parents, students, former students:do you have principal stories to share, good or bad? OMG, dish, puhleeze!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

2 Steps Forward, 1.5 Steps Backward

Last week José smiled. On a fairly regular basis. When he wasn't frowning, that is.

And, he sat downstage right or left most of the time we were at the rug, rather than practically out the door and with his back to me.

I considered all this enormous progress and worked hard to acknowledge it. I made him office monitor. I gave him reading logs to hand back (which, for some reason, is understood by children to be a great privilege). I rubbed his furry hair and told him how much he'd improved.

Then along came Friday.

No homework. No reading log. Yakyakyaking all day long. Airplane eraser battles. Sharpening pencils on both sides (dangerous when they fly missile-like through Griselda and Kyle B.'s airspace). It was as if everything he'd learned about classroom and academic behavior had gone for a long weekend in Vegas.

And it wasn't just him. I had to call two parents on Friday. Esteban's for his hurling of an eraser at another child after two warnings to stop, and Randy's for his punching out his own brother before school. It was a Friday frenzy.

I came home this weekend discouraged. Whereas on Wednesday I had imagined for the first time staying with this class for more than one year (something I generally do), Friday I was checking out my blog countdown post-it. Two hundred and how many days?

It felt so hopeless.

I went for TWO runs.

I put it out of my mind all weekend.

And then just now it came to me. In a play, a movie, a story, you can't have the problem solved in the first ten pages! That's when you're just setting up your inciting incident. I've got to think of this class like a script. We're only on page 10. 90+ to go.

Characters have obstacles. No one grows in a straight line (in good scripts, that is). I'd never write a character like that, so why would I expect a person--and a child at that--to behave linearly?

Setbacks are a good thing. Drama. Tension. Excitement!!! Yes! Bring it on.

As I told the class on Friday: "Boys and girls, use up a lot of energy on the weekend, and then on Monday, we'll try it again!"

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Return of the Darth Teacher

The first month of school is a crucial time in the life of a classroom. Don't meld them into a working group, and you pay for it for the rest of the year. Classroom life is chaos. Teaching and learning are repeatedly interrupted by stretches of wildness. Days are exhausting. Your Friday martini becomes a daily temptation.

BUT, if you find and effectively deploy your inner Darth Vader those first few weeks, you may, by late September even, be able to let your little ewoks in on the secret that it's all an act. You may allow a twinkle to dance in your eye as you pick up your yardstick in lightsaberly glee. The creatures will know that Darth Teacher is an act that pops out in reaction to their actions, and both parties will modify behaviors accordingly to GET BACK TO WORK! They will smile indulgently and knowingly at the appearance of Darth Teacher even while getting back to work. This is known as a happy classroom.

But we are so not there yet.

There are three main weapons in the Darth Teacher Arsenal: Darth Proximity, The Death Stare, and The Death Voice.

On Monday I used Darth Proximity many, many times. I stood ominously behind two (or more) misbehavers without saying a word until the entire rest of the class saw what I was doing and fell silent, causing the misbehavers eventually to notice that they were the only ones still wadding paper/throwing erasers/yanking books.

I used The Death Stare at least that often. The Death Stare instantly transports you to an ice planet without the help of airconditioning. There is no exit.

And I used The Death Voice SIX times.

The Death Voice. The Death Voice is a terrible, terrible thing. If you didn't know better, you'd think I was angry and yelling. Except that I'm not angry (okay, maybe a little bit frustrated).

The Death Voice is one that brings children to order instantly (though they may well forget it within 2-10 minutes).

The Death Voice has traction locking. A child's mouth automatically closes, and his head swivels in the direction of The Voice. If your car had The Death Voice you could part the Seas of Traffic and glide home with ease. Mothers and fathers know it well. But, of course, if you overuse it, it loses all power.

Monday, I got three new students, all boys--14 boys now!--and that little disruption created all kinds of new chaos. Hence the reversion to full Darth Teacher mode.

Though I have to admit, I did take out my yardstick lightsaber during spelling time, complete with a twinkle in one eye.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Darth Teacher

The force is always with us in the classroom. We, the teachers, direct, control, command. The question is always how much force to use.

I'm not talking about physical force--though did you know that in the eighth year of the 21st century corporal punishment in schools is still legal in 22 U.S. states?!

I'm talking about force of will.

Parents, of course, face the same dilemmas about forcing their will on smaller beings as teachers do


unless YOU, Dear Parent, have 20 offspring running around a one-room house for six hours a day five days a week and the federal government breathing down your back shouting 'test scores', you really do have to admit that teachers have a bit more to deal with.

Really, parents should remember this. Before you go shout/whine/hurl small missiles at your creature's teacher, take a deep breath, count to 10, and recite this mantra:
S/he has 20!
Or 30!
Or 40!
Or more!
All day long!
Then stop the missiles, and just say ommmmmmm.
Peace. . .

I learned how to be Darth Teacher from first learning how to be Darth Momma. When my dear (then) 5 year-old came home one day from his lovely constructivist Reggio preschool and announced, "You're not the boss of me!" I had to learn how to find my inner Vader. (All because he was into Star Wars). Breathing heavily, raspily, scarily, I snarled, " I....AM..... THEBOSS....of.... you. I.... am.. your...Mother!" And I flashed my pretend light saber in a challenging sort of way.
It sort of worked.
But, over time, my act sort of got better and better.

Theater--voices, especially-- go a loooooong way with little ones. If you can out-drama them, they pay attention.

Eventually, I learned how to take control of most situations that mattered, with the exception of morning toothbrushing, where my control over my child is a complete and miserable failure.

But taking control doesn't mean making all decisions. Really, it's about setting boundaries and parameters within which he learns to take responsibility as well as embrace freedom and play. You've got to have boundaries for creation to take place. Just ask any writer who stares at a blank page for hours on end.

When I call parents to find out why Javier or Samantha or LaChelle aren't doing their homework, I often get: "I tell her to, but s/he doesn't want to."

I'm sorry, but DOESN'T WANT TO?

It isn't even the doesn't want to that's so bad. Who wants to do homework? Who wants to pay bills? Who wants to clean the freaking house?

It's the 'I tell her but' that's the real issue. You, a grown adult who gave birth to or at least gave sperm to, this creature, are willing to settle for such little respect from them that at the ripe age of 5, 6, 7, or 8, they can choose when they want to listen to you?

Who's the boss of whom now?

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


How do you feel about lines? Most adults, I think, HATE them, unless we're already in one, and someone cuts into it. Then we want the orderly justice a line promises, be it on the freeway or at Costco. Our inner wild thing wants to become a ruthless enforcer of line order.

Wild kid beings, I've noticed, are just like us in this regard. They don't like being in line, but, omigod!, if anyone 'cuts' them, I'm instantly buzzed by a swarm of tattle-tales: Ms. B, Ms. B, Ms. B!! Kyle V. cut me! Esteban cut me! Kelly CUT ME!

The first time I heard this, I looked for the knife.
I'm sure there's a whole theory of discipline based on children walking like ducklings in perfectly ordered, evenly spaced, single or double files. Neat lines, neat minds. Or something like that. Certainly there's a lot of children's literature that walks that path.

I love the Madeline books, and I read them to my students, but I can't say I subscribe to the two straight lines theory of life. I was a 4th grader at a school run by Carmelite nuns who believed in uniformed field drills only Leni Riefenstahl would have enjoyed.

And, as you can see, I'm also not very good at it. My kids' lines always waver and wobble, especially after the first weeks of school.

Except in one area.

When it comes to getting kids to line up their numbers in math problems or line up their spelling words in neat columns, I'm a perfect little Nazi. Neatness when there's meaning involved is very important to me. What do you think?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

No Way José

It's the weekend. The Wild Things are roaring their terrible roars at home and not in my ears. In the silence I find myself thinking about José.

José who's always playing with his erasers. Who sits as far away from me as possible. Who likes to be last in line and alone at recess and with his back to the class.

I consulted with his kindergarten teacher, who, in a school bursting at the seams with Josés, instantly knew which one I was talking about: "The little stubborn guy. He does what he wants when he wants."

Yup. That one. A 3'8'' ft. furball of complete and total obstinacy.

I let students choose their seats until their choices prove to be unworkable. Then I move them. José chose to sit next to Griselda, another 3'8'' ft. furball of complete and total obstinacy. (We measured them. They're exactly the same size.) Well-matched in all ways. So far though, they tend towards cooperation rather than combat. Now if only the cooperation were a little more academic. Griselda, who, of course, knows everything, took it upon herself to inform me about José on the very first day of school: "Teacher. José just does what he wants to." I thanked her for the information and decided to keep a close eye on them. I also suggested to Griselda that José might want to speak for himself. "No, teacher," she said. "He doesn't speak English."

On Friday, International Talk Like a Pirate Day was a roaring success. Isabel and Kelly even came to school dressed for the part. We read a delightful book by Kathy Tucker, Do Pirates Take Baths? We stormed decks and flashed cutlasses, all the while shivering our timbers and cursing the cowardly scum. José was into it. He berated the scurvy dogs with the best of them. Defiance comes easily to him.

Every now and then I get a flash of a different José. When, for homework, I requested five sentences, preferably silly, he wrote me eight starring a baby who ate dinosaurs, castles, and entire mountains. His sentences came complete with capitals and periods. And, they were in English, contrary to Miss Griselda. Lurking under the shell of the class recluse is a bright, thoughtful boy who wants to engage with learning and cooperate with his classmates. Someone who might make a good leader. Someone who's perhaps trapped in a role he took on in kindergarten or even earlier. We all do it. Get stuck in selves we've outgrown and have to crack ourselves out of.

I just have to help him out of his isolation, which, by now, is his image in everyone's eyes. I need to create an academic path for his defiance. In short, find a way for a different José. And I think Griselda will be my perfect partner in crime.

(Her father did have a talk with her, by the way. "Teacher, I won't look at José's test again." So far, so good.)